The 'Brotherhoodization' of Egypt and its unions

Is the Muslim Brotherhood making moves to extend its control over local governments and labor unions?

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Industrialization and its discontents.

Issandr El Amrani, the main writer behind The Arabist, has been posting occasional links and thoughts on the Brotherhoodization of Egyptian institutions, real and imagined, since the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as president. 

A few days ago he pointed to the failure of Egypt's new constitution to devolve powers from Egypt's traditionally strong central state to the provinces and the power that gives to President Morsi and his appointees to control politics at the local level. In Egypt's recent cabinet reshuffle what caught his eye in particular was the appointment of Brotherhood stalwart Mohamed Beshir as minister of local development, since he was given an expanded role in selecting governors, who are appointed, not elected, in Egypt. An article in Al-Masry Al-Youm ("Egypt Today") says Beshir's ministry is currently planning on changing eight Egyptian governors, with the new officials coming from the ranks of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and Salafi Al Nour Party. 

"This is probably a more significant move than the cabinet shuffle. Governors have tremendous powers in Egypt, particularly ahead of an election. That all come from politics — the FJP and Nour parties — rather than the senior civil service, police, universities etc. as was the case under Mubarak is a striking change. It will certainly fuel the accusations of "Brotherhoodization" of the state, this time with some merit. Constitutionally, President Morsi has the right to appoint governors or delegate that privilege. It's one of the many shames of the new constitution it does not include mechanisms for direct election of governors and the empowerment of local government."

Today he flags a new piece by Joel Beinin, a historian of Egyptian labor and industrialization at Stanford University, which reinforces the sense that Morsi and the leaders of the Brotherhood are seeking to adapt the institutions and methods of Mubarak's Egypt to their own rule, rather than fundamentally change the top-down way the country has almost always been governed.

Beinin writes that on Nov. 25, Morsi issued a presidential decree on labor unions that received scant attention in the press, coming as it did on the heels of a decree that issued him broad powers designed to help him rush through Egypt's new constitution. That earlier decree sparked clashes and a political stand-off that ended in a Brotherhood victory when the constitution was passed. But Decree 97 of 2012 could have far reaching implications for how Egypt is governed going forward.

The decree governs how the leaders of Egypt's state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (ETUF) will be chosen, and could lead to Brotherhood packing the government-sponsored sub-unions with their own men.

"The decree also authorizes Minister of Manpower and Migration Khalid al-Azhari of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to appoint replacements to vacant trade union offices if no second-place candidate exists. State security officials banned thousands of opposition trade unionists from running in 2006, so hundreds of candidates ran unopposed. Thus, as many as 150 Muslim Brothers could be appointed to posts in ETUF’s 24 national sector unions, while 14 of 24 executive board members will be sacked," Beinin writes.

He continues: 

Decree 97 also extends the terms of incumbent union office-holders for six months or until the next ETUF elections (whichever comes first). Muslim Brothers and ETUF old guard figures will supervise those elections and likely confirm their joint control over the organization. This is characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent political practice. Rather than reform institutions and power centers of the Mubarak regime, it has sought to extend its control over them. But as in other spheres, they do not have a concrete program or enough trained personnel to manage ETUF. Therefore, they are dividing control of the organization with Mubarak era figures. Their common interest is first and foremost bureaucratic—to maintain their positions. The Brothers also seek to limit the extent of independent trade unionism, as it constitutes a potential opposition to their free market ideology.

That last sentence is worth emphasizing, since it's a point often missed about the Brothers in the West. The movement's economic ideology is largely free market capitalist, and strong independent trade unionism as about the furthest thing from the minds of the movement's leaders.

Beinin points out there were 3,150 strikes and other workers actions in the first eight months of last year, and with Egypt currently negotiating an austerity program in exchange for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, the chance for more unemployment and labor unrest is high.

In hindsight, an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes across Egypt that started in the middle of the last decade helped set the stage for the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. While it looks clear that the new government, just like the old one, will seek to push labor organization into easily controlled government proxies, stuffing the genie back into the bottle may prove difficult.

In 2007, I quoted American University in Cairo Political Science Professor Mohammed Kamel al-Sayyid in a piece on the then-blossoming strike wave, which was being fueled by IMF-urged policies that had sped up economic growth, but left wages stagnant and unemployment high.

Mohammed Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says the country's labor unrest could, over the long term, prove one of the greatest threats to the stability of the system, as a generation of Egyptians brought up to count on government jobs for life confront a new reality.

"This unprecedented wave of worker strikes certainly seems connected to the government's liberalization policies," he says. "I'm not saying there's going to be a revolution, but there's this ongoing process of deterioration in public trust. How many cops do you have to put on the streets to counter all this public frustration?"

Those risks, clearly, remain today. And now it is Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's problem.

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